Kehlani comes clean: The singer on love, life, and It Was Good Until It Wasn't
Kehlani was hanging out with Drake, sharing details of her last relationship, when she inadvertently discovered the name of her next record. "We started talking about something I was going through," she recalls. "I was like, 'Man, this s--- was just good until it wasn't,' and he was like, 'Yo, that's your album title.'"
It was more than a clever turn of phrase. Throughout It Was Good Until It Wasn't, her sophomore studio effort, the 25-year-old singer explores the fluctuating dynamics of love, from debating with a partner about an open relationship ("Open (Passionate)"), to navigating damaging rumors in a public romance ("Everybody Business"), to the typical push-pull that exists between couples ("Can I" ft. Tory Lanez).
"It's both the good and the bad, the accountability and the accusations, so I felt like it made perfect sense," she tells EW of the album's title.
Kehlani is speaking from her home in Los Angeles, two weeks before release day. The record was originally slated for April 24, her birthday, but the quarantine forced her to shift the rollout. Everything from cover art to music videos were either reworked or scrapped entirely. "We had all these grand plans, and we didn't get to do any of them," she says. "I told the label, 'Yo, the way my life works, I have to write as I go and I'm going to want to write a new album in five months or whenever this is all over. If I don't release this now, if I don't get this out of my body, then it's probably not going to happen.'"
The singer, born Kehlani Parrish, has weathered enough ups and downs over the years to manage any unforeseen changes. Seven years ago, she was effectively homeless, bouncing from couch to couch. The tide turned in 2014 when she independently released her mixtape Cloud 19 to critical acclaim. After signing to Atlantic Records, she dropped her debut studio album, SweetSexySavage, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, then followed it up with another well-received mixtape, While We Wait, in 2019. Along the way, she garnered a devoted following, who latched on to her willingness to share intimate details of her life and address the complexities of romance with a contemporary R&B flair. Through songs like "You Should Be Here," "Nights Like This," and "Valentine's Day (Shameful)" — the latter, which premiered in February, was allegedly about former beau YG's infidelity — Kehlani displayed a sense of fearlessness.
"I've been honest with every step of my career, even when it's my personal life," she says. "People have gotten to rock with me and grow up with me."
Her openness extends outside music too. In 2016, Kehlani revealed in a vulnerable Instagram post that she had tried to take her own life, following allegations that she had cheated on her then-boyfriend, NBA star Kyrie Irving. (She has since spoken out about the importance of depression and suicide prevention.) Staying busy with the new album has helped keep her mental health in check. "I haven't really had much time to get down about things because I've been learning computer software, working cameras we've never worked before, and putting together things that I've never even had to think about because I've always had a team to do it," she says.
Kehlani is admittedly in a different place than she was back then. Much of it stems from the arrival of her first child, daughter Adeya Nomi Parrish YoungWhite, in 2019. The birth helped Kehlani put her life and approach to music in perspective. "If I'm able to be sexually confident it's because I love my body now because I gave birth," says Kehlani. "If I'm able to be really mature and smart about something and talk about moving on, it's because my daughter is giving me the strength to move on and know that I don't have to sit in a situation that's not good for me because I have bigger things to worry about."
"Who [fans] were listening to and rocked with at 19 is a completely different girl than who they're experiencing at 25," she adds.
That maturity is magnified throughout the new album, which was recorded in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Unlike SweetSexySavage, which Kehlani felt was "rushed" — and one she didn't fall in love with until performing it live — she had more time to mull over It Was Good Until It Wasn't, making several versions before she landed on the one that felt right. Taking a moment to herself to decide on what worked and what didn't musically ended up paying off in the studio.
"When she gets in the booth and starts writing, even though she's young, she's very seasoned," says G. Ry, who co-produced lead single "Toxic" alongside KBeazy. "She's flawless to me. She's our generations' Aaliyah in some way."
Though Kehlani initially wanted to stay in her comfort zone for It Was Good, collaborating with those she had worked with in the past, she decided to bring in new voices instead, like Rogét Chahayed, Nija Charles, Trinidad James, and James Blake. "James Blake was insane to have on the project because I had no idea he knew I existed," she says of the British crooner's appearance on "Grieving."
Following the release, Kehlani was set to embark on her highest-profile tour yet, opening for Justin Bieber. Of course, those dates are on hold now. The pause has allowed her to take further stock of what it means to be a working artist in 2020 — not to mention all the tour managers, sound and lighting teams, and stage managers who work hand to mouth. "I think people have this misconception that artists make a lot of money off of music when we don't," she says. "Our entire financial help kind of comes from live shows and merch. You can't really do either of those things right now."
To fill up her schedule, Kehlani has continued to come up with ideas on the fly. She made the music video for "Toxic" in her bedroom on iMovie, and shot the "Everybody Business" visual in her backyard with a camera from Best Buy. Both her and photographer Brianna Alysse, who Kehlani is quarantining with, have been learning many creative techniques from scratch. "It's, 'How many times can we reinvent the same space? How many times can we shoot in the garage and make it look like we're not in the garage? How many times can we use a certain area in the backyard and make it a new area?'" asks Kehlani.
One way they incorporated her home was in the artwork for It Was Good Until It Wasn't, which shows Kehlani peeking over a brick wall in cut-offs while holding a running hose. "I thought of the idea of how to depict the title [of the record by] explaining and exposing duality and perspective and good things versus bad," she says. The back cover reveals Kehlani's face, in a state of shock. In the background, clouds of smoke from a burning building drift into the sky. It's a fitting visual metaphor for the singer's career — her experience with romance in the public eye, the idea of looking forward and away from the wreckage, the reality that, as open as she has been with her fans, no one will know the truth until she decides to tell them. "I keep the things that are really sacred, private — and make sure that if I'm ready to make anything public, that I have the strength and the backbone and the support around me to do so."